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Catch Share Fisheries at Work in the World’s Poorest Countries

By Jingjie Chu

Fencing Fisheries in Namibia and Beyond strengthens the case that rights-based fishery management works and a well-designed catch share system customized to the local culture and history will work even in underdeveloped countries. The development stage should not be a hindrance. On the contrary, there is an urgent need to use rights-based fishery management to help improve productivity and enhance sustainability in the fishery sector.

Chu is a 2011 Enviropreneur Institute Fellow and a natural resource economist with The World Bank Group, Africa Region. The above is Chu’s personal view, which may not represent the view of the World Bank.

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8 reasons why water is not the next gold

By Chris Corbin

I’ve noticed an increasing trend in what I call “Water is the Next Gold” articles. On some level, I couldn’t agree more – hence, my career choice. Although, as someone actively engaged in the western water market, I can easily name 8 reasons why water is not the next gold.

1. Gold is simple. Water is complex. Surface water vs. groundwater, simultaneous and interdependent use, just scratch the surface of this complex resource. The only constant with water is change.

2. Gold is safe. Water rights come with inherent risk, due to the uncertain validity of the invested asset.

3. Gold markets don’t include adjudication. Water markets include adjudication.

4. Gold markets have low transactions costs. Water markets have high transaction costs. Water transactions are plagued by third party effects and the tragedy of the anticommons.

5. Gold has many buyer and many sellers. This is not yet the case in the water market, but the supply and demand of water in the West makes this a strong possibility in the future.

6. Gold markets are efficient. Regulatory bottlenecks challenge the efficiency of water transactions.

7. Gold has clearly defined prices. Water lacks clearly defined prices. For example, tell me how much water is worth.

8. The gold market isn’t polarized. Some people believe water should never be traded. Even though I disagree with these people, their opinion still exists.

With that said, I strongly believe investing in Western water rights is a wonderful idea, it’s just not the next gold.

Chris Corbin is the founder of Lotic LLC — a water rights marketing and management company, and a PERC Enviropreneur Institute alum. He blogs at Living in Actively Moving Water.

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Reflections on World Rhino Day

By Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes

Last year, WWF declared September 22nd as World Rhino Day to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s rhino species, which continue to be seriously threatened by poaching. This year, WWF and the California-based organization, Saving Rhinos LLC, aims to continue that tradition along with various other smaller rhino-oriented organizations.

Given that tomorrow is the official day, it is worth reflecting on why rhinos continue to be threatened and what might be done to save them. Rhinos are poached for their horns, which command high prices in Asia where they are used for medicinal and ornamental purposes. A 35 year ban on international trade in rhino horn has failed to close down markets and prevent poaching. Since the inception of the ban, rhino populations have mostly continued to decline as the black market price of rhino horn has steadily risen to remarkable levels, encouraging increasingly aggressive levels of poaching activity.

Saving Rhinos LLC believes that the solution is to maintain the existing ban and ‘re-educate’ consumers of traditional rhino horn medicines. On the face of it, the economic logic of this approach appears sound: reduce the demand, and the price of rhino horn (and therefore incentive to poach) should also drop. However, Saving Rhinos LLC also proposes destroying existing stockpiles of horn held by government agencies as well as other measures that would reduce the potential supply of horn to the market. In this regard they appear misguided, as economic logic tells us that reductions in supply (both perceived and real) will result in higher black market prices.

Indeed, recent experience in South Africa appears to demonstrate that effect. South Africa stands out as being the most successful custodian of rhinos in the world – in 1900 rhinos were all but extinct there, but today it harbours more than 70 percent of the world’s population. This success is owed largely to the pursuit of market-friendly wildlife conservation policies, but has come under threat after recent attempts to tighten regulations stimulated a surge in new poaching incidents, which you can see in PERC’s latest case study. Banning domestic rhino horn trade and imposing restrictions on trophy hunting and live exports effectively restricted supply of rhino horn to the black market and almost certainly drove up the black market price.

Saving Rhinos LLC and similar organizations need to consider that a demand reduction approach may be resisted by consumers.  Rhino horn is revered in Asian culture, based on traditional beliefs that extend back thousands of years, significantly predating religious belief systems such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Changing such a deeply-rooted belief system in time to save wild rhinos may simply not be feasible – in which case we may need to consider other alternatives.

In Africa, rhino horns can be quite easily and harmlessly harvested from free-ranging animals, and they regrow.  A carefully regulated legal trade in rhino horn, supplied sustainably, with proceeds re-invested into conservation, provides a potential alternative that deserves further consideration.

For further information, please read Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story and visit
www.rhino-economics.com

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Perspectives on lionfish and marine parks in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

by Brett Howell, 2011 PERC Enviropreneur Institute alum

I have just returned from a 10-day trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico where I visited Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun. When I planned the SCUBA trip, I expected it be a relaxing vacation. However, ever since starting to work on market-based solutions to invasive lionfish, I just could not help but turn a “vacation” into a hands-on research project.

Unfortunately, invasive lionfish have become a prevalent species in Cozumel. According to my divemaster, who works for the company Dive Paradise, local dive operators have bonded together informally to begin addressing the lionfish invasion. Divemasters carry simple spear systems with them on each dive. When a lionfish is spotted, it is killed. Of the 25-30 dives I completed, lionfish were seen on about 10 of the dives, only in the shallower reef areas (45-60 feet). After it is speared, a lionfish’s spines are cut off and the fish is fed to eels or other fish. “Tourists” are not supposed to shoot the lionfish, for fear of someone being stung in the process, but our divemaster let one of the people on our boat, Eric, try his hand at the lionfish management process. According to Eric, the success of a shot really relies on the equipment being used. One spear he tried had a guidance mechanism to shoot the spear straight, whereas the other did not. Of the lionfish Eric went after, he successfully killed about half of them.

One afternoon our divemaster wanted the lionfish for dinner, so he kept approximately five of them for later feasting. While I was impressed with his interest in eating the fish, despite potential ciguatera concerns (a foodborne illness from eating certain reef fishes), I was very disappointed when he would not kill a lionfish that I found. His response was that he knew that the lionfish would be there the next time he went to the dive site, and he wanted the fish to get a little bigger so there was more meat for him to eat. This is part of the challenge with trying to get people to target lionfish; we do not want people to wait to harvest invasive lionfish in the hope that they will get bigger. The process of a lionfish growing means that it has eaten more of the critical reef species that we are trying to protect.

By far the most creative capture of a lionfish was a young lionfish that I found while on a night dive. Divemasters do not usually carry spears at night, so we ended up collecting the fish using one glove, a dive knife, and a plastic bag. The divemaster did the collecting. After killing the lionfish, he attempted to find an eel to feed it to, something he was unsuccessful in doing before we had to surface due to low air.  [Read more…]

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Central Planning and the Wallow Fire

by Paul Schwennesen

Prometheus, mankind’s great advocate and insubordinate pilferer of flame, must be perplexed by the goings-on in fire-riven Arizona. The towering columns of smoke have gone, but the forest conflagration has left behind half a million charred acres and more than a few smoldering resentments. Primary among these resentments is a question over management of public forest resources: who should decide how we avoid or at least mitigate such a calamity in the future? It is of course ironic; Marx claimed Prometheus as the figurehead of the communal mystique, and no asset is more communally owned than America’s western forests. Not surprisingly, these forests are a prime example of the tragic consequences of collective ownership and central management.

In addition to our famed cactus down south, Arizona harbors around seven billion cubic feet of live timber and the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lies on 2.63 million acres of this stand. Each year, solar energy and carbon are converted into nearly twenty-four million cubic feet of timber on national forest land. This resource is impressive and aesthetic, drawing sun-scorched tourists by the busload.

It also draws “managers” by the score. Aldo Leopold embarked on his first Forest Service assignment here in 1909, just a few miles from Bear Wallow. Ever since, the forest has been managed in the public domain by well-educated and better-intentioned technocrats charged with maximizing the public good. Under a complicated rubric of “multi-use,” the Forest Service attempts to harvest the sustainable yield of the resource (it is, after all, under the Department of Agriculture). Timber, livestock grazing, and hunting permits are just a few of the “extractive” uses they are charged with upholding. Habitat protection, endangered species management, and increasing recreational demands are a large and growing slice of the resource allocation pie.

The extraordinarily difficult job of balancing these competing demands is precisely the sort of thing that bureaucracies are bad at handling. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, these kinds of complex problems are not puzzles (which more information and better education can help solve), but mysteries (in which more information and better education tends to confuse). In the late-1980s, for instance, timber harvesting off national forest land came to a nearly complete halt as a result of court injunctions precipitated in the Pacific Northwest. Litigation by environmentally conscious lobbying groups, specifically over concerns of habitat destruction for endangered species, made large-scale timber harvest a thing of the past. Grazing permits likewise encountered a dramatic decline for similar reasons. Combined with an aggressive thirty-year campaign of actively putting out all fires (is there any more iconic mascot than Smoky the Bear?), these actions led predictably to a dramatic increase in forest-density and ground cover.

Forest density and ground cover is called “habitat” by the green contingent, “fuel-load” by their brown compatriots. And, of course, there is an element of truth in each view, often masking personal preferences and economic agendas. But the point is this: the kind of see-sawing policy shifts which encouraged dramatic, perhaps unsustainable, increases in extractive uses in the early 1980s was followed by dramatic, perhaps unconscionable, reductions in these uses a decade later. These market-insulated policy shifts were not based on good information (which markets are extraordinarily good at projecting), but on politics and the relative power of lobbying those in control. The short-term increases in forest habitat resulting from reduced extraction charged the pan for the tremendous blazes we have encountered in the past decade.

This past May, one of the sun-scorched tourists started a blaze that subsequently burned more acreage than any other single event in state history. Two and a half billion board feet of timber are estimated to have gone up in a whiff of carbon and particulate pollution this summer. Five hundred nineteen thousand, three hundred and nineteen acres of prime habitat, prime camping, prime hunting, and prime timber disappeared in an ecological blink of an eye. Before us lie the smoking remnants of command-and-control planning gone predictably awry.

“Well,” you say, “forests burn periodically, it’s a natural and proper consequence of growth.” If only it were that simple. Fire is indeed a natural ecological force, particularly in the brittle ecosystems of the semi-arid west. But size matters. Half-million acre infernos are almost certainly not typical of the “natural” order of things.   [Read more…]

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The costs and benefits of the word ‘externality’: what I learned at PERC

by Andrew Balthrop, a PhD student in economics at Georgia State University and 2011 PERC Graduate Fellow.

Until this summer, the way I thought about externalities was pretty abstract: an externality was where one agent affected another agent’s utility without compensation. The solution was to get a social planner to tell each agent what to do, and society would be better off for it. I had never thought too deeply about why the two agents could not settle the problem themselves, or about the institutions that might help address the problem. It was merely an optimization problem with two possible solutions.

For most of the summer, I didn’t get why everyone at PERC hated the term. Often times a point was made that went something like, “If this is really a problem, why haven’t people dealt with it?”  I took that point as an assumption that the economy must always and everywhere be in equilibrium; I thought the senior researchers were ignoring the most amazing thing about the economy: its dynamism. People do get rich with new discoveries, the landscape is ever shifting, and if you don’t adapt, you get left behind.  But I will come back to this point.

What changed my view–what put me in my place as a graduate student–was listening to the senior fellows at PERC talk about Ronald Coase. I must sheepishly admit that what I had taken from Coase was only the first three pages of “The Problem of Social Cost.” I was exactly what the fellows railed against. My take away was that externalities were reciprocal, and that if “transactions costs” were low, and property rights clear, agents would achieve the efficient outcome. But I assumed the point of the paper was that  transactions costs were not low, and that property rights were not clear, and that is why you have to study Baumol and Oates. I didn’t understand that the court cases were a way to make property rights clear and transactions costs low–that the courts were a solution. I left that seminar with my mind blown, and a little embarrassed.

How I should have been interpreting the comment of “If this is a real problem, why haven’t people dealt with it?” is actually, “You are talking in abstractions here. The real world is not a blackboard problem, and people are not hapless. If this is a problem, there must be specific institutional friction(s) preventing agents from solving it. Tell me specifically what that is, or you have not understood the situation.” This is why PERC researchers don’t say externality. Or spillover.

My own research focuses on the extent to which neighboring oil producers interfere with each other’s production. While at PERC I learned that merely quantifying this production interference was not sufficient to demonstrate a true externality. In order to do good research on the subject of oil and natural gas production, I would have to know the institutional environment inside and out. Inter-well communication isn’t enough to assure an externality; it is only a physics problem and people solve those all the time. For there to be an externality, something else has to be going wrong. For me to use the term, I need to identify specifically what that something else is, whether it is a peculiarity to oil production or oil law that makes contracting difficult, a regulation that incentivizes perverse behavior, or something else. And once I identify this problem specifically, there isn’t much reason to use the term “externality.”

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A Montana State of Mind

Brett Howell is a recent graduate of PERC’s 2011 Enviropreneur Institute. The following originally appeared on Gaia Endeavors.

I am just back from an incredible 2+ weeks in beautiful Bozeman, Montana, at PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute (PEI). The experience was life- changing for me. Through the program I greatly advanced an idea I have been developing around self-financing marine conservation using markets, I was both physically refreshed and emotionally restored, and I made a lasting group of friends with both my peers and mentors at the program. Highlights for me included late-night conversations around the campfire, bocci ball and lectures at Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch, epic barbeques, floating down the river, living in the Montana State University dorms, an impromptu graduation dinner in downtown Bozeman, bonding with my peers, and intense brainstorming sessions with mentors.

PEI 2011 culminated on Friday, July 8th, with “I have a dream” presentations during which each enviropreneur had seven minutes to describe his or her dream for the future of the project that had been developing during the program. These ideas ranged from applying property rights to coral reefs, to turning trees into pens to drive forest conservation, to nutrient trading schemes, among others. Each of these presentations dealt with a free market environmentalism (FME)-based concept. PERC’s version of FME is “dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets,” focusing on the creation of property rights to make markets work so that entrepreneurs can step in to solve environmental challenges.” FME is an idea that excites some people while raising red flags for others (e.g. can and should nature be turned into a market?).

While there are multiple perspectives on FME, PERC is not the only way to get involved in the discussion. All that is required is a group of people, either physically connected or tied through social media, willing to debate the pros and cons of various issues. For example, while the PEI 2011 Fellows are once again spread throughout the world, we will continue to have phone calls to discuss and advance our projects.

Even though PEI is now over and each of us is dealing with the first “reentry” week differently, I find myself in an exuberant mood despite the challenges. I look forward to seeing what impact the FME approach will have on my career and the places it will take me. With some strong perseverance and a bit of luck, I believe that all of the PEI 2011 Fellows will succeed at our endeavors. In honor of the “idea seeds” that PEI 2011 started, the class made a donation to the Coral Restoration Foundation so that a coral named “PEI 2011” could be placed into a nursery in the Florida Keys and eventually planted out on the reef to help seed other corals in Florida.

While some of the relationships and memories will inevitably fade as the weeks, months, and years go by, the Montana state-of-mind that PERC helped create never will, at least for me.

Check out the PEI program and/or make a donation with the Coral Restoration Foundation to help restore Florida’s reefs.

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What does it mean to be an environmentalist?

by Michael H. Higuera

Environmentalism is commonly thought of as a social movement. Social movements consist of a group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain goals. Broadly speaking, environmentalists try to promote conservation and protection of the environment. I’ve identified myself with this movement since I was about fourteen years old. At some point I began to ask, “How can I best help protect the environment?” If I could wave a wand and get everyone to be an environmentalist, the problem would be a lot closer to being solved. Unfortunately, I have not found that wand yet.

When I was approached with an opportunity to work at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I quickly realized that the organization’s emphasis on creating win-win solutions and avoiding confrontation was what had helped it become the largest and one of the most effective environmental organizations in the world. A hallmark of the organization has been using market transactions to create tangible results. For example, TNC has purchased conservation easements from ranchers permanently protecting important habitat from development and other threats. Ranchers often use that money to acquire more land allowing the next generation to stay on the ranch which helps agricultural communities remain viable while creating an incentive to protect the land. TNC is now pursuing similar win-win solutions such as coordinating payments from water users to protect important watersheds that are critical to providing clean drinking water.

TNC’s approach is alive and well at PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute this summer which I have been fortunate enough to attend. The participants are bright, ambitious “enviropreneurs” who are trying to create win-win solutions that will benefit the environment. There are some pretty innovative ideas like selling pens created from trees cut to enhance forest health and restoring coral reefs by tapping into the economic interests of people who make a living off of the marine environment. Some will succeed, many will fail, but more importantly a market promoting environmental protection is being developed. By appealing to peoples’ interests and letting them act on these incentives, I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time that we will be able to succeed in protecting and restoring the environment.

Mike Higuera is a 2011 PERC Enviropreneur Institute Fellow and a conservationist at The Nature Conservancy.

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Perspectives from PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute

Brett Howell is attending PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute program taking place in the Bozeman, Montana area from June 25th to July 8th. Below we are posting some time-delayed blogs that Brett wrote while at Ted Turner’s remote Flying D Ranch. In addition to reading Brett’s blogs, follow his tweets @BrettWHowell and @gaiaendeavors.

Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch and Wolf Conservation

I’m sitting by a stream at Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch as I ponder my first experiences with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) Enviropreneur Institute (known as PEI). I’ve been in Montana since Sunday, June 25th for PEI. We have an incredibly diverse group from across the US, Israel, the Galapagos, and South Africa. Each of us was selected through a highly competitive application process so that we could gain hands-on training in free-market environmentalism (FME). PERC’s version of FME is “dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets,” focusing on the creation of property rights to make markets work so that entrepreneurs can step in to solve environmental challenges.

On Monday, June 27th, we drove approximately 45 minutes from Bozeman to The Flying D Ranch, a 116,000 acre property that Ted Turner purchased 20 years ago. We are staying in rustic cabins alongside a small creek. From here we can see snow-covered peaks, beautiful green rolling hills, and perhaps most stunning, thousands of buffalo (also called bison).

This morning we heard from Danny Johnson, the Flying D’s ranch manger. I now know more about bison farming than I ever thought possible. Ted Turner, a name originally synonymous with CNN, is well known in Montana and throughout the US for his bison herds. He owns more than 54,000 head of bison throughout the US, approximately 5,600 of which are somewhere on the ranch where I’m currently sitting. Bison meat prices dropped in the mid 90s. To help create a market and drive demand, Ted’s Montana Grill was created to help introduce people to bison meat and provide a distribution channel through which his Turner’s meat could be sold.

Along with being a media entrepreneur and rancher, Turner is a committed conservationist. He controls more land holdings than the total size of Yellowstone National Park, and he has committed to putting conservation easements on every property he owns so that the natural state can be protected in perpetuity. Turner also supports a pack of 25 wolves (18 adults, 7 pups) that moved onto Flying D Ranch recently despite significant impacts on ranch operations. Turner’s decision to maintain wolves on his property is in sharp contrast to the wolf debate raging on public lands where farmers, hunters, environmentalists, and the park service, among others, are deliberating about the predators’ future in Montana.

The decision to allow wolves on the property has a clear impact on Flying D’s bottom line. For example, approximately 30 bison have been killed by wolves so far this year at Flying D Ranch, despite the fact that the wolves primarily feast on elk. Each bull bison sells for approximately $2,300. Elk hunting costs $14,500 for four and half days on Flying D Ranch. Given wolf impact on elk populations, the number of permitted elk hunters is being reduced to 24 from 30 for the upcoming season. Flying D has also hired a full-time wolf biologist to keep an eye on the pack.

The experience at Flying D Ranch has been an incredible opportunity to get out of the city and really connect with fellow PEI participants and see a model of FME at work. Our discussions are wide-ranging and truly inspiring!

Short Insights and Quotes from the first three days of PEI

  • There is no silver bullet yet for why biodiversity is important to markets
  • Property rights can help you create markets vs. moral persuasion
  • If you put a price on something, at what point are social norms holding us back from a market?
  • “But for analysis” – where would people be today, but for an incident that created the harm
  • Do fish have rights (e.g. under the US Endangered Species Act)?
  • Is a product that accounts for the cost of production externalities (e.g. polluting a stream) really a luxury good vs. the same product that is priced to ignore such externality costs?
  • “Sustainability is risk management”

Wildlife Tour on Flying D Ranch

The PEI Fellows woke up at 4:45am on Wednesday, June 29th, for an early morning tour of the Flying D Ranch. In three hours we had the incredible opportunity to see bear, moose, bald eagle, golden eagle, elk, white tail deer, coyote, beaver, and of course, farmed buffalo. At almost three times the size of my current home, the District of Columbia, the 116,000 acre ranch is a vast expanse that we barely began to explore on our drive. [Read more…]

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Water As A Crop™: Where Ideas Hold Water

by Steve Parrett

People across America and around the world are experiencing stress due to alarming fluctuations in freshwater supplies. The problem is not new; past civilizations exceeded Mother Nature’s bounty, then crumbled or fled in a desperate search for water. Despite our ability to capture water in reservoirs, we struggle to wrap our hands and minds around it. People need affordable, reliable, clean water, but it keeps moving in a natural cycle. It falls and runs, evaporates, dissolves, and slips away.

Here in the United States, a primordial fear of water scarcity is beginning to gnaw at us. And yet, we demand cheap, abundant water. The physics and chemistry of water won’t ever change. Instead, we must change our thinking and our actions. Sand County Foundation believes our challenge is to become responsible water stewards by understanding, valuing, and caring for water.

There is enormous opportunity to use water more efficiently, but because water is inexpensive, we tend to use it carelessly. Another promising water supply option is to conserve water where it falls on the ground, which will recharge depleted aquifers and provide clean surface water to dry summer streams, parched crops, and thirsty cities.

Leading industrial water users are taking greater responsibility for sustainable water management. The seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International, for example, is committed to effective environmental stewardship. Pioneer is providing essential scientific and financial support for Sand County Foundation’s Water As A Crop™ initiative to help landowners realize water is another valuable crop worth holding, nurturing, and producing for people and the environment.

As part of this effort, Sand County Foundation teamed up with PERC to produce four Water As A Crop case studies. These short studies describe profitable, voluntary strategies for marketing agricultural water to non-agricultural water quantity and quality demanders. When landowners can profit from improvements to environmental quality, outputs such as clean water, wildlife habitat, and improved stream flows become additional “crops” a landowner can produce for society. From apple growers in Washington to irrigators in Georgia, the agriculturalists identified in these case studies are doing well for themselves while also doing good for the environment.

These proven conservation practices, and others within the grasp of landowners, percolate water into the ground so it can slowly enter the stream again, clear and cold. They also produce wildlife habitat and more resilient food and ecological systems.  Nature returns when people cherish water as a crop. And, perhaps more importantly, when water is managed, we become good stewards of the Earth and can take pride in our efforts to meet current and future water needs.

Steve Parrett is the director of the Water As A Crop™ initiative with the Sand County Foundation.

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Fast Food Nation?

by Paul Schwennesen

According to Eric Schlosser, of Food Inc. fame, “The American people are becoming really, really unhealthy and this is an issue we can’t just leave to individuals deciding to bicycle instead of drive their car. We need governments worldwide to be taking action to reverse the problem.”

We need government action to “reverse the problem”? Why didn’t we think of that? How shrewd.

Look, I get it. A diet of Big Macs and Cherry Coke isn’t pretty. I would probably agree with Schlosser about what constitutes a healthy diet. I like a meal of fresh, locally procured produce as much as any food activist. In fact, I’ve taken my food consciousness a step further and spend most of my time and energy growing healthy food for conscientious consumers. The happy meals they make of it are a far cry from the drive-thru option, and I’m glad for that.

The difference is that I’m not attempting to foist my views of food morality through regulation. While we may share similar tastes, I draw the line at imposing it on others. I too would like to see schools serving better food and have done my small part to help it happen. I too would like to see locally raised products become more affordable and have been trimming costs to become more accessible.

But before we congratulate ourselves too primly, I’d like to point out that the despicable eating habits of the pathetic “individuals” vilified by Schlosser have already moved far ahead of him…

I first got wind of this fact during a weak moment at Wendy’s. We pulled in, trying to hide our “Grassfed Beef” emblazoned door panels. Not only do they offer a rather remarkable salad (spinach leaves, cranberries, mandarin oranges and bleu cheese), but the crafty buggers even gave the kids educational flash cards and puzzles. As our brood plowed through a package of freshly cut apples, I couldn’t help but wonder what Wendy’s was up to. Nothing good, you can be sure.

Subway is now the world’s most commonplace food joint, outstripping even the megalithic McDonald’s. Burger King is now offering their latest fare on a ciabatta bun. Ciabatta? That’s so chic, even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize it. How are those cretins on the street to relate?

I have to credit Schlosser and his gang. The work they have done in educating the eating public is wide-ranging and important. So why not leave it there?  Why sully it with blatant attempts to push it into the realm of “governments worldwide”? Michael Pollan, a somewhat more muted activist, says it well:

I really have a lot of faith — and I know that it’s considered naive by some people on the left — that consumers can change things. I have seen too many cases of what happens when consumers decide to inflect their buying decisions with their moral and political values. It brings about change.

Indeed it does. The vibrant social debate over what makes for good food and where to get it is an excellent one to have. But let’s keep the debate (and the choices people make) out in the open, not behind the counter of the state. The unintended consequences of state dabbling are usually too hard to swallow.

Paul Schwennesen is a PERC Enviropreneur Institute alum and a former Lone Mountain Fellow at PERC. He runs the Double Check Ranch in southern Arizona and maintains AgrarianLiberty.com.

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Playing Chicken with the Department of Ag

by Paul Schwennesen

Josh is a Mennonite friend who happens, by the grace of native talent and a powerful work ethic, to produce magnificent chickens. Raised on green growing pasture, they are never medicated, never fed artificial supplements or genetically selected to grow abnormally fast. They develop rich golden fat and a deep flavor; characteristics that have been more or less lost in modern, streamlined, highly efficient poultry production. Not surprisingly, Josh’s chickens are in high demand among food cognoscenti and fine restaurants.

A couple of years ago, I began bringing Josh’s chickens to my farmers’ market stand to market alongside our equally popular grassfed beef. Josh and I, in a classic entrepreneurial endeavor, have made these wholesome chickens available to happy, discerning customers who would otherwise be unable to justify a three hour commute to buy a bird for dinner.

Josh processes his chickens on his farm under a legal exemption allowing him to avoid industrial (and expensive) processing plants. Each chicken he produces is clearly labeled as to origin, method of production, added ingredients (none), as well as citing the statute, which allows him to do these things unmolested.

Last weekend he was informed by the Food Safety Inspection Service, the regulatory arm of the USDA, that he faced a “situation.” They had discovered a chink in the otherwise protective “non-molestation” statute. Because he is marketing chickens to an intermediary (me), his product is therefore rendered illegal and he must desist. In a disturbing addendum, the inspector also let slip that the USDA would be “willing and free of charge” to take over inspection of his facilities, and that they would be “more than happy to help him get going,” presumably in the chicken business.

The same authority willing to allow a company to distribute (and I’m not making this up) neon-green sugar drink with the word “sweetener” (in quotes) on the ingredient list believes that customers cannot be trusted to buy a natural chicken from a reputable farmer.

Perhaps this is just the fickle vagary, the marginalia of an otherwise appropriate regulatory regime.  But I’m afraid this situation represents a deeper, metastasized, problem.  The late Mr. Jefferson, that “intellectual voluptuary” according to his Big Government nemeses, explained that government’s only purpose is to secure natural rights.  Governments, he believed, exist to protect life, liberty, property and little else.  It’s probably archaic of me to wish for a return to such a limited view, but I can’t help it.  The kind of absurd oversight now considered standard practice feel fundamentally unjust. It would be wonderful to live in a world where selling a chicken wasn’t rife with official allegations or burdened with state prohibitions.